Despite the uncertainties they face, the rise of China and India — particularly China’s growing relative power — is causing alarm in Asia and the US. Some US political leaders and strategists advocate sharply divergent policies toward China and India. They view China as a competitor that Washington should ‘hedge’ against, and they view India as a natural security partner whose power should be enhanced.
But it may be more complicated than simply defining them as either enemies or allies. A ‘reality check’ on the history of Chinese and Indian international behaviour indicates that both China and India will present the US with sustained challenges as well as opportunities in the coming years. Washington will need nuanced, if distinct, approaches to each.
Our book Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior: Growing Power and Alarm creates a framework for comparing Chinese and Indian international strategic behaviour in three areas: foreign policy, military modernisation and economic strategies.
On issues relating to foreign policy, some US scholars and policy makers argue that China is unusually prone to the use of force. China has been involved in more militarised conflicts than India since 1949, but according to the respected Correlates of War project run by the University of Michigan, since 1980 both have used force an equal number of times. China has more maritime disputes than India and has recently raised regional concerns by more firmly asserting its claims.
But China has moved further in negotiating territorial disputes than India.
On issues of global governance, India is not markedly closer to the US than China. Indian and Chinese voting records in the UN General Assembly show that on issues related to Iran, Sudan, Burma, Middle East security and nuclear proliferation, China and India more often align with one another than either aligns with the US.
Meanwhile, many US leaders are critical of China’s rapidly growing defence budgets and of the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has developed a more offence-oriented military doctrine. But China is not unique in these areas. India devotes a larger share of GDP to military spending than China does, and India’s defence budget is also growing fast. Moreover, both countries have many military spending items that are not included in official defence budgets.
India is also moving toward offence-oriented operational military doctrines and has developed substantial capabilities to project power beyond its periphery. Like China in East Asia, some Indian military developments have disruptive effects on the balance of power within South Asia.
As for economic strategy, China remains more open to trade and foreign direct investment than India. And while India’s international trade is five times smaller than China’s, India’s trade partners have levelled the same number of complaints against it at the WTO. Chinese and Indian international energy market behaviours are not markedly different, with Indian and Chinese state firms pursuing energy investment opportunities in ‘rogue regimes’ including Sudan, Syria and Iran.
There is no empirical evidence to support the claim that the stark difference in domestic regimes — India’s vibrant democracy versus China’s authoritarian state — causes one or the other to be more or less prone to use force, build military power, seek trade advantages or pursue narrow self-interest. This does not imply that US policy should treat China and India identically. Nor does evidence of similar strategic behaviours put to rest concerns about US–China frictions or preclude a closer US–India relationship. Instead, the comparisons provide a better understanding of Chinese and Indian interests and capabilities.
Here we mention four policy approaches, among others, that the US would be wise to pursue.
Rather than basing expectations of international behaviour on political ideals or domestic regime differences, policy makers should rely on ‘nuanced, pragmatic realism’ as a guide to foreign policy. This nuanced realism recognises that ideals are important but does not put them ahead of interests in predicting the behaviour of other states.
The US should rebalance its India policy by building a more robust economic and diplomatic foundation before delivering greater military and geostrategic support.
The US must maintain robust deterrent capabilities in East Asia vis-à-vis China, but should posture military forces in ways that minimise the risk of provoking reactions that undermine — rather than buttress — stability.
Finally, the balance of material power and capability will determine relations with China and India in the long term. So the US should prioritise the techno-economic challenge from Asia’s rising powers, primarily by pursuing domestic policies within the US that will maintain or extend existing technological and economic advantages.
In the 21st century, the US and its allies will face a complex, dual challenge from Asia’s rising powers, rather than the simple, singular challenge of balancing China’s growing power.
George J. Gilboy is a Senior Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for International Studies and Eric Heginbotham is a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation.